Talking Heads With Something To Say

The state of commentary and discussion, particularly on cable TV, isn’t good these days. Where we once had the eruduite musings of a Bill Buckley (with whom I seldom agreed, but who sent me scurrying to the dictionary to look up some of the words he used, and who was always fascinating to listen to), TV punditry is frequently reduced to highly-opinionated blowhards spending most of their time screaming over each other, while generic “background” footage loops over and over on part of the screen, and incessesent animated graphics compete for screen real estate with scrolling or flipping “crawls” of “breaking news.” Right-wing Republicans (is there any kind anymore?) seem to be more likely to be shouting down an attempts by their opponents to get a word in edgewise, though they certainly don’t hold the monopoly on that.

Particular distressing has been the slide of CNN. What was once a pretty good news organization with a global reach and perspective (Ted Turned famous banned the term “foreign” from the early CNN, noting that what’s “foreign” is largely a matter of perspective and which piece of ground you’re standing on), has been reduced to hypergraphics and endless reports of “what’s viral on the internet” (hint:  lots of cats). I’m amazed that Turned even has the stomache to venture into the building in Atlanta, given what his creation has turned into.

But then there’s a bright spot on CNN:  Fareed Zakaria.  I’ve long admired Fareed (he seems too familiar by now to call him anything else), back when he was a frequent guest on the Sunday morning talk circuit, particularly ABC’s This Week program. (That latter program is now presided over by Christian Amanpour, who’s slowly remaking it into a more intelligent program as well). These days, Fareed presides over a Sunday morning “chat show” called GPS (for the Global Public Square), in addition to his “day job” as Editor-at-large for Time.

The things I really like about GPS all stem from its host. First off, Fareed Zakaria was born and grew up in Mumbia, India. Then he came to the U.S. for undergraduate studies at Yale and graduate studies at Harvard. Yes, that makes him one of the right-wing hated “elite.” The rest of us might call that “smart” and “educated.” One of the first things that you notice in a Fareed interview is how keenly interested he seems to be in anything and everything. There is a a level of curiosity that is missing from most political talk show hosts. The second thing you notice is how often Fareed says little. He tends to let his guests go on at length, challenging them when they misstate facts; jumping in with questions at appropriate times when more explanation or a follow-up is needed.

Perhaps it comes from being from another country originally, or maybe it’s that intellectual curiosity, but I find that the perspective on GPS tends to be a lot more global, and less paraochially “American” than most shows. It’s not that Fareed is remotely anti-American; if anything, he frequently is a cheerleader for American exceptialism, but in a positive way. That is, he doesn’t have the knee-jerk reaction that “of course America is the most exceptional place on earth,” but rather the desire that we should be, by virtue of our drive, skills, accomplishments and hard work, and not from any God-given right.

This global perspective is also reflected in the guests. Sometimes these are the “usual experts” and politicians you find on every other Sunday-morning show. But more typically they are just “smart people” who know something about the subject. Sometimes the group is ideologically-balanced, which makes for lively conversation when smart people disagree. Sometimes not. The desire seems to be to assemble a group of people who have opinions based on a strong set of reliable facts.

Yes, the GPS logs spin and change color, and I find the constant captions reiterating what the guest has just said somewhat annoying. And there is the omnipresent CNN “breaking news” flip bar on the bottom to send you into fits of electrical brain disturbance. You can always close you eyes, though, and concentrate on what’s being said.

There are also the various weekly features, including the “What In The World” (think WTF!) segment and a weekly book recommendation (sometimes one from one of the guests; occasionally Fareed’s). If you want to exercise your brain beyond the usual Sunday morning blather and get behind some of the news (and exposed to some things you have not encountered before), this is a good place to start.

Lately, Fareed has branched out with a series of specials built around the theme of Restoring The American Dream (remember what I said above?). Each hour tackles a different aspect:  education, innovation, etc. It’s reminiscent of the old days CBS Reports et. al. when documentaries were a regular part of network programming. All of the programs are available online at the web site, and as a free podcast on iTunes for those who prefer to view their programs on smartphones or tablets.

Set your GPS to GPS. It will be good for you brain.

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